Board Of Ed Eyes Innovation Fund

Westport’s schools are among the best in the country.

One Board of Education member thinks he has a way to make them better.

Last week, Mark Mathias presented his colleagues with a new idea: an Innovation Fund. The aim is to give everyone — from the superintendent, Board of Ed, administrators and teachers to the town’s 5,500 students and residents — a chance to offer ideas for education. And then act on them.

Mathias’ Innovation Fund would cost $1 million per year. Funds would go to a project manager; a committee to evaluate applications, oversee projects and assess results, and of course to the projects themselves.

The Innovation Fund could also match grants from outside sources — Kickstarter, GoFundMe, DonorsChoose, or a foundation, company or individual.

The Fund, Mathias says, could offer increased opportunities for student outcomes and teacher development; help attract and  retain superior staff, and make Westport even more attractive for families.

The community would also see the potential of teachers and students unleashed to invent, design, build, engineer and create. Meanwhile, businesses could join with schools to leverage resources.

The Westport Maker Faire taps into creativty and energy, for people of all ages. Mark Mathias would like to see a similar push for innovation in our schools.

The Westport Maker Faire taps into creativity and energy, for people of all ages. Mark Mathias would like to see a similar push for innovation in our schools.

For example, Mathias sees teachers experimenting with different techniques of engaging students; the results could then be compared. Students could request equipment for a maker space, building materials for a community project, or equipment for a new sport. Administrators could come up with an idea to better manage maintenance, equipment or energy, while teachers and students might collaborate running an actual company.

“I have no idea what people will actually come up with,” Mathias says. “But I am constantly amazed at the level of energy and creativity of everyone in Westport — including our children.

“The point is, we need to tap into the enthusiasm and ideas of our entire community, yielding learning experiences far beyond the classroom that prepare students for life beyond Westport, while attracting and retaining the best staff and teachers and continuing to make Westport this preferred place to live.”

He acknowledges that funding the Innovation Fund may prove challenging. The Board of Ed will discuss and vote on the item at its next meeting (Monday, February 1, 7:30 p.m., Staples High School cafeteria).


35 responses to “Board Of Ed Eyes Innovation Fund

  1. Janette Kinnally

    I think that is a great idea! I support the funding for this wholeheartedly.

  2. Brilliant idea.. yes .. this would help make things better.. incentivize creativity .. YEs that is a good start .. !

  3. Wow, Westport BOE must have unlimited resources if they can put aside an extra $1 million for new ideas, over and above meeting all their salaries, overhead and facilities costs!

    While there is always the possibility of making the “best schools in the country” ever greater, don’t you think we’d improve more lives by donating that $1 million to Bridgeport where school kids go without so many things we take for granted here: arts, music, sports, and especially classes in programming and other technology skills.

    Also, I’d dispense with the idea of a paid project manager and paid committee to direct how that money is used. Our community is full of talented administrators who will be happy to volunteer their services to a good cause.

    • Suggestions like this are why I used to be a conservative.

      When a town can set aside $1 million for pipe dream stuff – $1 million that could be surely put to better use in our own community (or surely another, as Mr. Blau notes), we need to take a deep breath.

      You want to try to get a grant to fund some “innovation projects”? Great. You want to have a bake sale? Great. But asking taxpayers to kick in $40 per resident for something that can’t be quantified? That isn’t just bad government – that’s the lazy way out.

      • Jerry MacDaid

        Why you “used to be a conservative”? I’m a bit confused. A typo perhaps? Spending other people’s money on pipe dreams tends not to be their MO.

        Unless you are in the “rich people (who must be conservative by definition) have way too much money if they spend it on things like this rather than spend it where real people really need it” camp. My experience has been people who spend (or want to spend) other people’s money like this, rich or poor, tend to not be conservative.

        • Nancy Hunter Wilson

          Why is it that the words “conservative” and “liberal” are so often defined so strictly when, in fact, there are many branches, facets? Why should anyone stick to only one view?

          • Because this kind of idea is the sort of “throw money at something” mentality that gave Democrats a bad name for years and years.

            Now, clearly, anyone following current events knows that Republicans throw around just as much money – simply on different things.

            But this is the kind of idea that contributed to the stereotype of liberalism as undisciplined spending, that kept may away from the liberal fold for a long, long time.

            I kind of want to believe that the idea was a joke, to make the $125,000 for bus monitors suddenly seem more reasonable, by comparison, for instance.

            And, for what it’s worth, anywhere where I ever worked, suggesting ways to improve the jobs we do was always part of the job description. Let’s at least have the discipline to discuss funding good individual ideas on an annual basis. Creating a million-dollar slush fund is simply ludicrous, unserious, and irresponsible.

  4. What about an innovation fund for Bridgeport schools? Students there do not have nearly the opportunities that Westport kids do. See superintendent Fran Rabinowitz’s recent remarks in the Connecticut Post article, “Bridgeport schools crumble, wealthy suburban districts thrive.”

  5. Mark, as you could well guess, I’m all over this…let me know if I can help, or work with you on this.

    Mark Y.

    Last week, Mark Mathias presented his colleagues with a new idea: an Innovation Fund. The aim is to give everyone — from th”

  6. Mark actually raised this thought at a prior Bd. of Ed. meeting. I reiterate what I then wrote the Bd. of Ed. and as to which I received no response. In essence, the concept sounds appealing, but is not. Innovation is and should be part of the normal educational experience, a discrete fund of $1 million is not necessary, is inappropriate and lends itself to educational distortions among subjects, classes, students, administrators and teachers. Any proponent of an innovation fund must also set forth the cuts from existing programs or other expenditures that will provide the money for an innovation fund and the costs of its administration.
    Don Bergmann

  7. Apparently there are quite few people in our town, maybe they aren’t in our town, who think this is a great idea and don’t care if the taxes under our new assessments go even higher. Hmmm, wonder if any of them in support of this proposal even have kids in town? Be it as it may, I am entirely against such a proposal that, as Mr Bergmann states above, should be part of the normal educational experience. Maybe that was what was lacking in Mr. Mathias’ high school experience.

  8. How about spending that million dollars on some quality mental health issues….

  9. While I support innovation….a $1million fund….really? If parents want to support their children’s innovative and creative efforts, I am all for it….just not at the expense of taxpayers. We live in a community that doesn’t have problems blowing money on big houses and fancy cars. I am all for innovation and as a trustee of a private charitable foundation involved in supporting STEM programs but there are a lot of schools in less affluent community that really need the help. Mr. Mathias should look at how other similar organization’s operate at a fraction of the cost with no additional burden to the taxpayer.

  10. I’m all for innovation, but can we innovate the taxes, first? My assessment went up 15% (15%! With 0 improvement to the property!), and I can barely breathe reading this.

  11. Jerry MacDaid

    It is stuff like this that causes folks in Hartford to look around the state and look at Fairfield County and say “those people have way too much money…let’s not send them any and, oh by the way, let’s tax them some more”. Maybe it’s true…my knee jerk reaction is sort of along the same lines – someone has (or thinks they have) way too much money on their hands. Unfortunately, while that might be true for some in Westport, it catches up a lot of Westporters and other Fairfield County folks who don’t fall in the same basket.

    Just priceless though. Not a nickel for affordable housing but let’s throw another $1MM at schools that are already “over the top” compared to most.

  12. Bart Shuldman

    This is shocking and sad all at the same time. As some seniors in our town struggle with keeping up in our town, as town real estate taxes go up every year, we now have our 2nd spending ‘proposal’ from the BofE. We should not forget the proposal to spend $20 million on a ‘building’ for engineering and robots. Where and when does it stop?

    The school budget is over 50% of the towns spending-or put it better-over 50% of the need fo our collected taxes. The spending plan for our schools is being debated now and we watch as bus monitors might be cut along with other budget items. And that is to keep the spending increase at 1.5%. With the type of cuts being proposed, we should and rightfully so, see the spending increase go up t put some budget cut items back in.

    However, now we read about another $1 million need.

    In addition, the town is also facing spending requests for Compo (not sure if the new walkway and others just approved is the final amount), downtown project is for millions and so is a request by the library. I believe there are others.

    With all these requests including this new one, our real estate taxes ‘could’ face a significant increase if all this goes thru. However, I will remain hopeful that our town leaders including the BofE will slow down and think about how much more we want to tax the residents.

    • Bart; what is magic about 1.5% ? We should spend what is needed to maintain a first class school system, but spend wisely. I agree this proposed expenditure not essential. Perhaps the proposed objectives could be achieved by establishing a private organization that is crowd funded; or maybe not.

      I do agree with your observation that the rate of increase in taxes must be controlled, however there are trade-offs.We would do well to recognize the fact that while the town’s Grand List is over $10 billion, an impairment in the quality of the schools could easily reduce that amount by 1%, which would be a more than $100,000,000 loss in real estate values. Whether we like it or not, Westport competes with other communities for new residents. One of the major drivers of that competition is the quality of the schools.

      Westport has lagged in its investment in STEM facilities when compared to the broad universe of schools systems. Our students will not be able to compete in the 21st century while learning in mid-20th century facilities.

      I see many of the other projects on the Town’s wish list as frivolous when compared to the need for first rate facilities for the schools. Building pedestrian bridges over the Saugatuck and investing in a transportation system that has not functioned properly for the more than 35 years I have lived in Westport, are examples of frivolous expenditures. The schools are full while the buses are virtually empty. Let’s get our priorities right. Who moves to Westport to ride the buses or walk over the Saugatuck on a needless pedestrian bridge?

      I am a senior. I don’t expect a hand out from the town of Westport based upon my age. Such hand outs are fruitless given Malloy’s propensities to raise tax rates and raid Fairfield County. Westport cannot overcome the the massive financial mismanagement undertaken by Malloy and his cronies in Hartford.

      • Michael. I hope we can agree that Staples has been ranked as one of the best, if not the best HS in CT and one of the best in the country. Our teachers and principals have done an outstanding job coupled with the many BofE members over the years who donate their time. And let’s not forget our elementary and middle schools.

        As for STEM it is important that we balance our curriculum while focusing on the ‘new’ needs. With a daughter at Staples I get to see the many different classes that are available at Staples. Just Amazing. The curriculum book is huge. While we should look at our STEM classes and classrooms to make sure we are current, I would suggest we review all the classes that are taught, and the classrooms that are used. Could some be outdated, or replaced, as the world focuses more on needing technology graduates?

        However,no matter what we do, we must insure a balance approach. 06880 is wonderful at providing the many stories of Staples graduates who write, direct, take pictures, announce, sing, dance, paint, lead, create, argue, etc. Not everyone wants to be an engineer or computer science major.

        I also believe it is important that we take a balance approach to school spending. I have been in Westport for quite some time and the leaders in Westport have approved budgets that have provided the funds to let our schools flourish. And lately, as Staples continues to win recognition, Westport has been done that with fiscal discipline.

        Westport has limited funds, all provided by the tax payers, and we cannot lose sight of our senior citizens. If we just spend and spend, and in response raise taxes, we would drive them away. We might also drive other residents out of Westport who might not be able to pay the much higher taxes that will be needed to support all the programs the different constituents want.

  13. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    As Dirksen (a long ago Republican gadfly in the US senate) once said: “A million here, a million there before long it adds up to some real money.”
    Innovation is great but its a matter of great ideas (and minds) generate money, not the other way around. A well-intentioned idea. I’m sure there’s a way to make it work to make money and then send the proceeds to people who really need it.

  14. I have often said in public that in my opinion America doesn’t have an education problem. It has a social/economic problem. No one in higher office at the state and federal level has the guts to say that because they have no answer to the problem so they point fingers at schools, public education, and teachers. It is easy to do that and to stir up anger and weaken support for public schools. I had NO difficulty reminding people that for many reasons the students (in general) in Westport come to school each day eager to learn. They work hard, learn the skills to solve problems, learn how to learn, and enjoy themselves each day. Our teachers at the high school level are able to share their passion for a subject with students, to get to know them, nurture their passions and meet their needs. I applaud the BOE for attempting to put aside one million dollars to foster student/teacher creativity. I find NOTHING wrong with that. I don’t believe that sending one million dollars to Bridgeport would change a thing. The kids in Westport will graduate with the skills required to do extremely well in college and business. They will be the change-makers of the future. The health of our nation will depend on young people in communities like Westport becoming involved in making the world a better place. I have some very concrete ideas on what to do for kids trapped in horrible living conditions in our cities, but that is for another time. I hope the BOE proposal gains community support.

    • Sorry, Mr. Dodig. I’m sure your intentions are good, but poorly argued. I went through Westport schools 100%, K-12 and can attest to the fact they’re excellent, but so much of my fellow students’ success has to do with their families, who were also successful.

      With our upbringings and family involvement in our education, we would have been successful attending the far less glamorous public and parochial of a place like Flushing, Queens, and if you look around a little, you’ll find that so many “change-makers of the future” are extraordinary people attending rather ordinary schools in these kinds of places, with few of the bells & whistles we have in a special place like Westport.

      In fact, I think you’ll find some positive social aspects lacking in Westport in these successful students from basic middle class backgrounds: more willingness to choose a profession other than the highest-paying ones (e.g. finance), higher participation in the military and public service, and, perhaps, more of sense of duty in caring for their elders.

      Finally, there’s your argument that “sending one million dollars to Bridgeport [won’t] change a thing.” I thought the concept here wasn’t to send money (which I agree wouldn’t solve anything), but to use it as an incentive to come up with better ideas for education.

      Education in Bridgeport DOES need better ideas. Currently, many of the wealthy of Westport are supporting charter schools, which I believe is one good idea, but they only address a small part of the problem for a small part of the population.

      So, sorry, sir, I send your essay back with a C-minus.

      • Peter. Giving someone a C- because you don’t like their opinion, or the fact that you have a different opinion, would make you a horrible teacher. Just saying.

    • John. I would add one more topic to your discussion–called priorities. Priorities at the state level.

      Many might not know, but the Governor and the leadership approved spending $1 BILLION on tracks and the infrustructure that will run trains from New Haven to Hartford to Springfield. A BILLION dollars just to build out the needed tracks and stations. The state will also spend millions and millions of dollars supporting the new tracks and stations once completed.

      A BILLION DOLLARS for 2,200 riders. A BILLION DOLLARS for people to travel to Springfield MASS? Or the other way?

      Given the current economic times and the need to attract technology businesses to CT, should the Governor and the leadership spent the BILLION DOLLARS on STEM education instead? How many more people, more chidlren and students would that have affected? Worst case, if you divide the $1 BILLION by the 169 towns in CT, the state could have provided almost $6 million, earmarked for STEM, to every town in CT. The Governor and leadership would have supported an education program that might have provided these students an education needed in todays world. And maybe those studetns would have come back to CT and built their technilogy business in CT.

      John–money is not free. It appears to me that talking is all words, but actions are much different.

      • Bart, I’m every bit as skeptic as you are regarding CT state priorities, but wouldn’t be so quick to belittle rail service to Hartford & Springfield. There are hardly any riders now because there are currently only 3 trains a day, and subject to Amtrak’s abysmal on-time record. I’m sure you can agree that our current New Haven Line and Amtrak NE regional services are heavily used and vital alternatives to our clogged and weather-sensitive roads. Having decent Hartford & Springfield rail service restored to even 1950’s standards would immensely increase the popularity of doing business in those gritty old cities.

        • Bart Shuldman

          I would hope that our Governor is not spending $1 BILLION on rail service to help improve the gritty town of Springfield MA. The ridership is projected at 2,200 people. Not many going to Springfield but maybe the Govenror and the leadership in Hartford want to help get more people to Massachusettes. Seems like their policies drive GE there.

          Peter-what is the priority? Where should we spend the money, that, we don’t have and need to borrow? Should we have a better education system that supports STEM, which is needed everywhere, or build a track to no where? If the state supported more STEM programs would we attract more people to move to CT instead of Westchester or NJ? I think so.

  15. As we analyze Connecticut’s continued employment losses, e.g. GE, we need to take a hard look at our traditional town-centric education management, where the difference between a Westport and a Bridgeport is night and day. This is not simply an issue of budget — even though Bridgeport’s per pupil expenditure is about 25% lower despite all the special needs present there — but quality of management and staff.

    Quite bluntly, our big city governments, including the school systems, have become dumping grounds for political hack appointees — often down and out thieves — and we with the wherewithal to do something about it, sit in our cocoons a few miles away debating on how we can add still more gloss to our already gleaming schools and other public facilities.

    I do not think there is an easy solution, but I do believe there’s merit in some sort of regionalized public management coupled with reform of the political party system currently looting the very populations that can least afford it.

    • The people of Bridgeport have voted for decades to elect public officials who have produced the conditions that exist in the city. Elections have consequences. If the citizens wanted different conditions, they would have elected different politicians. Most recently, the citizens of Bridgeport elected a mayor who went to jail after being convicted for corruption. His election was a choice; it was not thrust upon the citizens of Bridgeport. Perhaps they know what they want when they go to the polls. Why should anyone who does not live in Bridgeport presume to know what is best for the residents of that city? If the residents want change, they have an avenue to create change, but thus far they have not.

      • Nancy Hunter Wilson

        How big is voter turnout in Bridgeport?

        • Since Bridgeport is essentially a 1-party town — like so many other crumbling corrupt cities — the deciding vote is the Democratic primary. Ganim beat Finch 6,135 to 5,683. Population is over 140,000. So maybe 10% of the population decides who runs the place

          Worse yet, our state Democrats enable corruption.State Dems did not intervene to stop Christina Ayala from running for State Representative when she had serious legal issues (hit and run accident, and then voting fraud based on lying about where she lived.)

          To put the icing on the cake, Governor Malloy appointed Ms. Ayala’s cousin, Andres Ayala, to DMV Commissioner, despite Mr Ayala having no administrative experience (he was a teacher before becoming state rep and then state senator.) Malloy was forced to fire Mr. Ayala last week after a disastrous computer upgrade causing intolerable wait times at DMV branches.

          • Bart Shuldman

            Peter. The DMV debacle is a great indication and example of the problems with Givernor Malloy and his party.

            Guess who sits on the transportation committee that has oversight on the DMV? Our own Rep Steinberg from Westport.

            The same person who approved the budget, including the tax increases, and then approved the recent budget changes that do not ‘deal’ with the real issues regarding the failing financiers in CT. The same who helped drive GE out of CT.

            And the same guy who would rather spend $1 BILLION on a rail to Springfield for 2,200 riders than spend the money on the 155,000 daily riders on Metro North.

            You have to wonder how and why he would get re elected.

            If Rep Steinberg loses, then we are very close to not allowing Governor Malloy have the control on the house and senate. No more blank check. MALLOY controls and the dem leadership control, which does not have Westport interest, is hurting everyone in Westport.

            Think about it. You can companion that Bridgeport voted in a mayor that went to jail, we will vote in a state rep that votes against our needs. Not sure what is worse.

            • Not sure I follow the cause and effect here. Rep. Steinberg — who happens to be an old friend of mine — may sit on the transportation committee, but he represents Westport, where Metro North riders live.

              His political concern is keeping his own constituents happy — not those in Hartford, New Haven or anyplace else where constituents would ride that line you oppose. So I doubt you could blame him as the primary motivator for “pork barrel” spending benefitting people who can’t vote for him.

              As for DMV, that was a political appointee by the Governor, so not Rep. Steinberg’s department. Regarding DMV, this illustrates a systemic problem: Malloy wants to have more Hispanic appointees: not a bad thing in and of itself. If you look back a few years, Governors deliberately made Irish, Italian and Jewish appointees for the same reasons.

              But because of the power that a handful of grungy politicos have in a place like Bridgeport, Malloy chooses that Hispanic guy who happens to be a political hack, rather than some other Hispanic guy who might have years of excellent managerial experience in the private sector.

              • Peter. I have to disagree with your analysis of Rep Steinberg. He sold his vote to Hartford to approve a budget and then a change to the budget that is causing many issues in Westport. But worse-he sold his vote to support his leadership that refuses to fix the financial issues in CT. The easy result to see how his vote impacted our area is GE moving. Simple and easy. They are moving because he voted to approve tax hikes that hurt businesses and his employees. He approved a budget that will raise taxes on computer service firms. He approved the coming Unity tax that was an insult to GE and others.

                But I am not surprised that you support your ‘friend’. I could only wish that Rep Steinberg supported Westport over Hartford. How
                Many state dollars will we lose to PILOT? Why was Westport hurt more than other towns? Steinberg did is no favor.

                I don’t care about party politics. Just care we have leaders that make the tough decisions. Steinberg proved he cannot.

                But I can also hope Westport wakes up and instead of complaining which we read lots of, Westport uses our vote to change.

  16. On the topic of the Matthias Innovation fund; good intentions like this lead to escalating government spending.
    Why is the cost for the fund an even $1 million? Is it assuming the salary and benefit costs of the Project Manager would deplete the first $150-200K? With other administrative costs depleting another $100K? This would leave $700K – $750K to be earmarked for “innovation projects”.

    What if there are not enough worthy innovation projects for the funds? Would the money not be spent for a year and left in the fund?
    History shows budgets will be fully spent every year. It’s in the vested interest of the staff whose positions are tied to a specific budget to justify their position by spending the funds and request more funds in future years. With not even a broad scope of desired outcomes, requests for additional funding would easily be justified.

    Why not start this as a small pilot with private outside funding and without adding personnel to budget. The fund could be managed by existing administration or volunteers. 100% of the funds could then go towards kids or teachers innovation projects. Funded projects would have agreed upon goals and success criteria at the start. If the pilot is deemed a success the “innovation fund” could be expanded.